Plainview, Texas (PRWEB) April 19, 2014
For the last 25 years visitors at the Museum of the Llano Estacado have been greeted by the skull of an Imperial Mammoth, discovered in May of 1988 near Easter, a small community on the Castro County line. In that time, thousands of visitors from all across the country have visited the exhibit.
This April, the Easter Elephant celebrates its 25th anniversary, give or take 15,000 years, and the skull can be viewed at the museum on the campus of Wayland Baptist University during normal business hours at 1900 W. 8th St. in Plainview.
In 1987, Stanley Wilcox of Hereford stumbled across some fossilized teeth while repairing damage to an underground cable for West Texas Rural Telephone Co. According to an article in the Amarillo Daily News, it was a year later that local farmer Lon Woodburn showed former curator of the museum Eddie Guffee where the teeth had been discovered. About 30 feet from the original discovery, Guffee and Woodburn noticed part of a tusk sticking out of the ground.
It took nearly three weeks for a team, led by Guffee, to unearth the fossil, encased in stone and believed to weigh nearly 4,000 pounds. It is estimated 4,000-5,000 people visited the dig site while excavation was ongoing. Historically, the Imperial Mammoth grew to approximately 13 feet tall at the shoulders and weighed approximately 6 tons. At the time the fossil was found, Guffee said the best estimates are that the mammoth roamed the plains anywhere from 11,500 – 25,000 years ago.
While the skull officially belonged to the people of Castro County it was decided that it would be housed and displayed in Plainview. The Llano Estacado museum serves as a federal repository for these types of artifacts. The Castro County museum didn’t have the facilities or qualified staff to properly care for and display the fossil. The skull was encased in plaster before being lifted from the 10-foot deep hole and being transported to Plainview. It took approximately a year for Guffee to properly remove the plaster and additional rock surrounding the fossil, restoring the skull and preparing it for display.
Rodney Watson, who replaced Guffee as director of the museum in 2004, worked with Guffee in the 1980s and had just left the museum to pursue a career in banking at the time of the discovery. He would return to the museum on nights and weekends to complete some projects and gave Guffee some good advice on preserving the fossil.
“He was having a lot of problems stabilizing it because it was so brittle,” Watson said.
Watson had been using dental plaster to cast letters for exhibit titles. He said the museum’s budget was so small at the time that they could afford only one set of letters. He would cast molds of the letters and glue those to the walls.
“I had this five pound box of dental plaster. I suggested mixing that and working it into the cracks to see if it would hold the bones together,” he said. “It did. That is the pink stuff you see mixed in with the bone.”
Once the fossil was placed on exhibit in 1989, the museum saw a marked increase in traffic. In 1988, 7,683 people visited the museum. With the addition of the mammoth display, 18,547 people visited the museum in 1989, still a record year for attendance. Wayland Professor of Geology and University Paleontologist Dr. Tim Walsh said interest in the fossil is not surprising.
“To have something that complete is pretty rare,” Walsh said. “You’ve got a complete skull with most of the tusks.”
Walsh said fossils are typically found in pieces as the elements erode, wash away and scatter some of the bones. Scavengers also move pieces around, making it difficult to find a complete fossil.
“There were some other bones recovered, but it’s hard to make a positive connection unless you find it at the same time in the same beds,” Walsh said. “There are probably more bones out there, but none are as important as the skull and the teeth.”
Walsh explained that the teeth are used to positively identify skeletal remains.
“When you look at mammal fossils, dentition is the main thing used for identification,” he said.
Last summer, Walsh led an expedition to federal land in South Dakota to hunt for fossils. He said a couple of students are currently working with dental fossils they discovered to determine from what animal they came. He also said they will be returning to South Dakota this summer to continue the search.
While the mammoth skull sits undisturbed in its display at the museum, it still remains one of the most amazing and complete fossilized discoveries from the area, and still occasionally draws interest from folks outside of West Texas.
“Years later, when I came back to the museum as director, we still had people coming from the east coast just to see the exhibit,” Watson said.